Surprise! In this chapter, you’re gonna see mention of Luna. She’s a sweet and brainy friend of Rez’s who was totally supposed to be mentioned in Chapter One.
So, as I promised: plot holes abound!
Rez sighed in resignation as Benny, Rogers’s deputy, escorted her to the wobbly ladder that led to the municipal modular’s roof. As she knew the man would, he waved her on, inviting her to climb up ahead of him. Giving her shirttail a firm tug over her bum, she acknowledged Benny with a brief smile—making sure she abided by the settlers’ excessive length for ‘brief’—then started to climb.
Benny’s heavy weight shook the warped, wooden frame as he started up after her. “It’s good to see ya, Rez.”
Benny was definitely playing to his sole strength—maxing out his one-track-mind by staring at her ass. Normally, she could have cared less about Benny’s leering. His eyes on her backside usually meant good things because she would be walking away from him.
However, since he was literally tailing her up the chute-covered ladder, her shirttail safety check was necessary. The fine hairs on her lower back had been skittish as of late. If some hind-instinct decided that danger was afoot, her hairs would strobe and light up the dark chute like a flash grenade.
Would it be a magnificent display of awesomeness? Of course.
Would it also be a major screwing-herself-up-the-ass? Yeah. Totally.
She tightened her grip on the ladder until her knuckles blanched, then meticulously she focused on climbing up while ignoring her body’s insistence to run away.
Why were her instincts so particular? Distance was distance, wasn’t it?
At the top of the ladder, she crawled onto the roof, looking around as she stood. Rogers was up there alone, gazing out at Briarwood. He held his broken comms tablet the same way that a kid would clasp a blankie. Funny that she should think that of him. Rogers had been a young man when Rez had come to Two-Four-Kay. In the ten years since her arrival, his face had grown rounder while his hair grew thinner. No grays peppered his temples, but laugh lines—from all his plastered on smiles—had creased the skin around his eyes and mouth.
Rez dragged her boots through the debris on the flat roof, using the scraping noise to announce her presence. It was just another ‘while in Two-Four-Kay’ habit that she’d adopted. Too many times she’d startled folks because she was too light-footed.
Rogers turned to her and smiled.
Hell, it was his ‘I’m-so-clever’ smile. His puffed up ego loved an audience, but Rez was not a good audience member. Nor had she been an attentive student, accommodating passenger, or calm patient. She completely bombed in any role that involved patiently doing nothing.
“Ah, Delorez! Come. Come.” He beckoned her with his free hand.
Rez’s legs—from her locked knees to her reluctant feet—protested against moving toward Rogers. She felt like she was dragging around a sulking teen. Her body obeyed, but it wasn’t happy about it.
Whatever. She was moving and that would speed things along. When she reached Rogers’s side, he would yap about stuff. Then they would exchange sealed messages, and Rez would finally be able to bolt back to Briarwood.
All she had to do was stand and stare at some focal point on Rogers’s face.
Why couldn’t she become completely absorbed by his twitching nose or freckled left cheek while he ran this mouth? People who would talk at her always got snippy whenever she would look away, seeking anything else that wasn’t so head-splittingly boring.
They would huff. “Are you listening to me?”
Honestly, no. She heard them, but why the hell would she waste additional time thinking about what they said?
Therefore, Rogers took her by surprise when he asked, “Did… did you see that?”
He began to point his finger. “Over there—”
She’d already turned her head. Sure, she’d swiveled a bit too fast, but Rogers wasn’t looking at her anyway. His expression of shock-mixed-with-confusion meant that his focus was entirely on whatever he’d seen.
Immediately, she traveled her gaze along Rogers’s sight-line. A blazing ball of crackling blue light careened low across the sky. It skimmed along the towering treetops of the forest before smashing into the leaves and branches of the uppercanopy.
It fell, disappearing deep within Briarwood.
Rez’s heart began beating rapidly. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. She hadn’t lived her entire life in Two-Four-Kay, where a working lightbulb was a sheer marvel. She knew what had streaked across the sky. That blue ball had been a surface-to-space craft. She’d been on something like it before.
She’d also been on a ship with a crapped-out propulsion engine. While the erratic arcs of blue energy had been kinda pretty, they had also incinerated most of the passengers.
However, the most important thing about sighting that ship? Nobody on Warren’s Planet owned tech like that.
Okay. Nobody had owned tech like that. Every single settlement was struggling because they lacked both the parts and expertise to fix things. Within another few years, the lack of working tech would reclassify Warren’s as a pre-industrialized planet.
The survival rate on P.I. planets was not good.
Rogers would probably send her to investigate the wreck. Maybe even order her to salvage it, dragging it all, bit by bit, back to Two-Four-Kay. And since the settlers didn’t know how fast she could move—honestly, she could probably salvage the ship within a week, tops—she would be getting some quality alone time.
Hell, she could snag roughly three to four months of blessed, near-solitude!
But that notion didn’t sit well with her because of the poor ship’s crew. Blue, incineration-inducing arcs had been wrapped around the entire ship. Surely, they were all dead.
Okay. New plan.
First, she would race out to the crash, hopefully getting there ahead of Briarwood’s predators. She would try to identify the fallen crew and give them proper rites. Finally, she would report back to Two-Four-Kay.
To effectively cover her ass, she would have to delay her return to the settlement for a week or two. It meant delaying any information about the crew as well, but it was all she could do for them without compromising herself.
If fate or karma or anyone else out there was keeping score, surely they understood that? Right?
She was probably right. Because if not, there were several ways for Cosmic Payback to screw her over. For instance, what if it decided that Rogers rejecting her salvage estimate repaid her slight delay of honoring the dead?
Yeah. That would really suck.
She needed Rogers to accept a timeframe that allowed her to salvage (at a supposedly human-speed) while also giving herself a chance to completely exhausted all her pent-up frustration. When her energy was drained, it bettered her chances of keeping her secret.
She was looking at six months, max.
Surely, no more than eight.
Desperate to get her tushy little tail to Briarwood, she spun back to Rogers. The man was still gaping at the sky.
“Hey, Rogers.” Hell, she was actually rocking back-and-forth on her heels. She probably looked like an eager-to-please idiot. “Want me to go salvage that for you?”
Rogers, with his mouth hanging open, slid his gaze from the forest, to her, back to the forest. “Um… I…?”
“Lots of fancy tech out there, Rogers.” She rounded her eyes wide to convey ‘golly! wow!’ as she canted her noggin toward the forest several times. There. There. There. Send me there. “I could scout it for you. Bring back some working tech stuff, yeah?”
Rogers’s stunned expression crumbled into confusion. “Nothing would be working—”
“You don’t know that.” She cut him off, hoping to cut off his line of thinking as well.
She had to go there.
“I…” Rogers blinked and his brow descended in thought. “I don’t know that.” He gave her a contemplative gaze. “But you could go and find out for certain.”
Rez beamed at Rogers, very pleased that he was coming around to her idea. “I certainly could find out for…um…certain.”
Crap, now she sounded like an idiot as well. But, that didn’t change the facts. She would get there first. No way the other settlements, who must have seen the crash, could get enough grunts out there to find the wreck before she did.
“Wait.” Benny, who’d been standing by the ladder, drew the word out, obviously believing that it had more than one syllable.
The deputy knocked his gaze between her and Rogers. “You’d send her there?”
Yes. There. She really wanted to go there.
Rogers nodded and smiled. “Yes. Sending Delorez out there is truly perfect.”
Sending her into Briarwood was her idea. However, since good ol’ Rogers was applying his personal strength for assuming someone else’s due praise, she wasn’t slighted. Much. It was incredibly easy to benefit from his compulsions. He always had to be right and admired and important. In fact, she had to resist the urge to pat Rogers on the back. Really, no sense in getting carried away. Rogers was just being Rogers.
Since she was inordinately pleased with the man, she let him spent minutes—agonizing minutes—speaking about her assignment. She also didn’t utter a single grump or huff when Rogers insisted that Benny accompany her to the edge of the forest.
Fine. Just keep it rolling.
On her way through the settlement with Benny, she grabbed her lightweight pack, as well as a second bag with her resupplies. But as she ducked out of the tiny hut that she shared with Joia and Luna, she hesitated. Should she find them first? Jo, being Jo, probably already knew about the crash and Rez’s assignment. In fact, if Rez hunted her down, Jo would arch her brow and roll her eyes.
“Go already, Rez,” she would groan impatiently.
And Luna, well, no one found Luna. She always found you first.
Right. So, Rez would simply go.
With each step toward Briarwood, her heart thumped. Almost there. Almost there. Even her fine hairs were tingling with excitement.
At the edge of the forest, Benny stopped walking and gave her a baffled look.
Was she jittery? She must be jittery.
“You look happy to go.” He both sounded and looked puzzled.
Well, yeah. She was eager and rearing and really ready to go there. Wherever ‘there’ was. But she would figure it out. She only had the one forest to search. Easy stuff.
“Usually, you’re happy to leave.” Benny kept eying her warily. “Not to go.”
Wrestling with dichotomous concepts was obviously straining Benny’s one-track capacity. If he kept struggling with his thoughts, he would exhausted himself and sink, like a cow caught in mud.
She should probably pull him out. “I’m excited about the tech, Benny. That tech is the most valuable thing on Warren’s Planet.”
His brow wrinkled in confusion. “It is?”
“It sure is.” She gave him a wink before gingerly hopping over the imaginary starting line—the boundary for Briarwood that the other settlers refused to cross. “It’s worth more than all the carats in Two-Four-Kay’s gold mine.”
She entered the forest, keeping her pace deceptively slow and steady because the low branches and thin bushes had yet to conceal her from view. Despite her slowly moving legs, her heart thumped wild and true.
Almost there. There. There.
Benny hollered after her. “More than the mine?”
His mine, mine, mine echoed in time with the there, there, there beating inside her chest.
Her mental sludge—the deliberate miring of her movements and speech whenever she entered the village—sluiced away.
Stored energy poured into her legs, priming her muscles.
Her lungs expanded, billowing with her breath.
“More than anything!” she hollered back to Benny.
Her own voice shot through the forest, firing off like a starting pistol. Surging forward, she raced off.
“I could have moved that.” Kinixys frowned up at his sibling as she lifted a smoldering tree trunk off his chest.
He didn’t know why he’d bothered saying anything. She couldn’t hear him. The disruptor pulse that had struck the shuttle, thus causing a cascading power failure of all systems, had neutralized the helmet comms. As it was, Kinixys only heard his own surly echo while Emys silently nodded, as if he’d thanked her.
Bullshit. He was not thanking her. He’d just freed his left hand from a twisted girder! That downed trunk was next on his list of ‘Get This Shit Off of Me.’
Notice how ‘Help’ was not included in the title.
His sibling well knew his mind, just as he knew hers. Emys knew that he didn’t need rescuing. Likewise, he knew her nod was a taunting ‘you’re welcome’ in response to his bristling.
“By Aku Himself,” he grumbled while getting to his feet, “I’ve laid under blankets heavier than that tree.”
But getting the last word—the best word—when he knew Emys couldn’t hear him, burned inside his gullet. So, for added good measure, he hauled back his foot and kicked the trunk. It careened away, plowing down smaller bushes and such, until it splintered against another monolithic tree.
He felt slightly better. If he could also smash the cowardly assholes who’d shot down their shuttle his mood would greatly improve. All he required was a two-word command.
He glanced at his sibling cum commander. Emys was methodically striding through the debris. Although her helmet hid her face, her body language radiated her modulating focus. He knew, that as she assessed the wreck, she was constantly favoring precision over speed. And, when necessary, speed over precision.
Kinixys approved of her approach, as he would have strived to do the same.
He would have strived with all his might to refrain from stomping around the wreckage, finding nary a clue due to his blinding rage. And that was why he praised Aku that Emys led as the commander and he brawled as the enforcer. Everything ran smoothly when each Akupara did their best.
Therefore, until his sibling identified someone for him to annihilate, he had a duty to oversee. It fell to him to secure a perimeter around their current position.
As he set off into the surrounding forest, he minded his steps. He admired his sibling’s composure and refused to complicate her task by tromping all over the crash site. Her priorities were tiered. Identify the threat. Rate exposure. Calculate acceptable losses of field operatives. The Bale was protected above all else.
By comparison, his job was easy. Step One: Set a defense circle. Step Two: obliterate anything that breached said circle. Step Three: Rinse off the blood and guts. Repeat.
Kinixys just loved a good regimen. The efficient processes. The precise execution. Quantifiable results. After that shit meeting with Rogers and then dropping out of the sky, he needed to decompress. Badly.
Once clear of the wreck’s debris field, he conducted his first, measured sweep of the perimeter.
He continued to push farther out with each pass, creating a generous buffer so that Emys would remain undisturbed while she worked. The only inhabitants that he encountered were forest animals. He found no sign of his sibling’s purported human female.
Although… Despite completing the requisite number of sweeps, his instincts urged him onward. They demanded that he surveil again. To push the perimeter out a bit more.
Fine. He would trust their judgement over his preference for flawless regimen. After all, his instincts had earned him exemplary ratings, such as ‘Least Likely to be Surprised by an Ambush’ and ‘Last Standing After a Skirmish.’ He even held ‘Slowest to Succumb to Grievous Injuries.’
Therefore, if his top-ranking innate perceptions weren’t satisfied by adhering to standard operating procedures, then neither was he.
In this instance.
Otherwise, he would already be at Step Three: Rinse and repeat.
Kinixys started another sweep, heading down a deep slope. His heart pounded inside his chest. Surely, his trusted instincts would lead him to glorious enemies in need of smiting. He would hunt them down and slowly pound—
Kinixys swore as he dove into a roll, transferring his forward momentum from his legs to the domed curvature of his armor’s back-plating. He barreled down the slope, flatting the undergrowth in his path. Finally, he slammed into a marshy ditch at the base of the slope, spraying muck and dislodged plants into the air.
Praise to Aku that Emys had remained at the crash site. This entire situation had become…discomforting.
As he sprawled in the muck, his first glimpse of the female flashed through his mind.
No natural camouflage.
A disturbing lack of scutes.
His impulses were prodding him to bolt over to the female and seize, er, examine her for injuries. Well, his impulses could shut the hell up. They were heedless idiots, unlike his award-winning instincts.
He was Akupara.
He would not disgrace or compromise his Bale with his hasty actions.
Silently, he recited the Prayer for Persistence—thrice—then executed precise moves to bring himself upright and standing. With his feet solidly planted and his legs braced, he squared his shoulders and held his head high.
No shame would befall the Umara Bale that day.
“Sibling Mine,” Emys said from behind him. “Are you preening?”
He needn’t glance around to know that the human female was gone.
The Umara Bale might have been spared humiliation, but Kinixys the Last?
Not so much.
Rez planted her palms on her knees as she gasped for breath.
Good lord, she never gasped for breath.
It had been—
What the actual fuck?
She just saw an alien.
Swearing in self-disgust, she let her head drop.
Of course she saw an alien. She’d lived on planets other than Warren’s. Aliens were—well, not common—but certainly nothing to freak out about any longer. Humans were well beyond First Contact Hysterics. They had quickly advanced to Conspiracy-Fuelled Xenophobia, and thereby had earned themselves intergalactic renown for jumping to preposterous conclusions.
That human trait of quick-draw decisions, minus the inanity, represented a fair portion of Rez’s DNA. The rest, well…
She’d never seen an Akupara until a split second ago. Within that immense length of time, she’d come to several sound conclusions.
First, that Luna’s theory about their origins—hers and Jo’s and Luna’s—really needed further study. Even better, the theory should find a whole new alien race for its cornerstone hypothesis. Because there was no freaking way scientists spliced humans with the Akupara and produced someone like herself, Joia, and Luna.
There was just no freaking way.
The Akupara moved slower than humans! Way super slower. Like, slugs on muscle-relaxant slow.
Sure, this particular Akupara had come tearing down the hill, but he’d been rolling like a fired off cannon ball. Physics 101 was his personal police escort. However, once he’d crossed jurisdictions into An-Object-at-Restville, he moved slower than any living thing she’d ever seen. Snails. Slugs. Tortoises…
Though, watching the Akupara get his bearings and then stand up had been stupefyingly captivating.
Lord, it was like witnessing a mountain range form over millions of years.
The alien just kept rising up, up, up.
Rez got a good look at him. A real good look.
Whenever she’d heard anyone speak about the Akupara, they always mentioned their armor. Several studies declared it the most shock resistant, most pliable, plus most impervious weapon-grade armor in the known galaxies. Enthusiasts declare the armor superior to the plating on warships.
People—humans and other aliens alike—lusted after the Akuparas’ armor.
Know what? Her Akupara—the one who was the size of a freaking mountain range—wore the hell outta that armor.
Whatever the material was, it both moved and fitted him like a second skin. Which meant each dip, bulge, and swell outlined by that flexible armor was all him. From his stacked shoulders to his corded arms, all ending with his cobbled abs and thick thighs…
That wasn’t some bulked up suit. That was him.
Even covered in globs of mud, with limp, uprooted plants draped over his shoulders, she’d suddenly understood why the single men of Two-Four-Kay were strutting around, trying to snag up all the single ladies. Once the Akupara entered the settlement, no human woman would pass them by.
Which, would be incredibly weird to witness. Flocks of woman would be gawking, shuffling their position every hour or so, as they traipsed-stopped-traipsed after a turtle-trotting Akupara.
Well, aside from faulty origin theories and smokin’ hot bodies in armor, Rez had come to a final, very important conclusion.
The Akupara had to have come from the crashed ship.
It made total sense. The Akupara were off-worlders who had recently arrived on Warren’s, thus they would have space-faring craft. Also, Rogers had been staring right at the trajectory of the ship when it’d crashed. He probably had just met with the Akupara or had been anticipating their by-air arrival.
Her third point of reasoning, though, was freaking solid. Based on this guy’s pace, it would have taken him weeks to get this deep into Briarwood. She had just run through the forest yesterday. Three times, in fact. She definitely would have seen the Akupara.
The only explanation—the ship.
Which meant no salvage.
Which also meant that she had to evade the Akupara for days.
Shaking her head as her dreams of venting pent-up frustration vanished, she ran toward her nearest bolthole. She needed to stay scarce for five days. That was plenty of time to tackle her restocking tasks and tend to other things. When it came time to go back to Two-Four-Kay, she could easily dash around the Akupara if he was still dragging his feet around Briarwood.
But a queasy feeling rolled through her belly anyway.
Was Cosmic Payback gnawing on her ass right now?
Hell, she was overthinking things.
The Akupara wasn’t payback. He wasn’t even a threat. The guy would lose a downhill race against a two-legged tortoise. Avoiding him for a week was totally doable.
Logically, she knew that. Plus, her task list would provide a whole day’s worth of distractions.
See? No worries. She had it all under control.
Please feel free to leave a comment (and I would really love to hear from you!). I’m going to add my thoughts as well.
From Slow & Steady: As She Goes
Copyright © 2020 by Bex McLynn
All rights reserved